Overview: A sad-sack flower shop employee is tempted to commit murder by a smooth-talking plant that feeds on human blood. Warner Bros; 1986; Rated PG-13; 94 Minutes
Feed Me: In case that brief plot description didn’t tip you off, Little Shop of Horrors is an insane film, and that adjective assignment barely scratches the surface. On paper, this film should not work. Not only is it a comedic remake of a 1960s horror film, it’s a musical to boot. Little Shop’s success comes from its refusal to concede its own absurdity. Rather than apologizing for the film’s sillier aspects by making jokes about them, everything is played completely straight. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers don’t come off as embarrassed by the material. The humor lies in how seriously the characters take their world. Their reactions come from realistic human emotions. The stakes are real for them.
Absurdity in Context: Director Frank Oz intentionally contradicts that emotional authenticity by contextualizing it within an artificial world. The sets in this movie look like sets, and it’s not just a throwback to the production value of Roger Corman’s original The Little Shop of Horrors. The fake-ness is an intelligent and intentional technique. Rather than risking unintentional campiness by placing their absurd story in a realistic context, the filmmakers include more realistic story elements and character beats to ground the surrounding absurdity. Combined with the earnest performances from Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, Little Shop feels like an honest depiction of life in a bizarre alternate universe.
Somewhere That’s Green: The film’s charm is further punctuated by its musical numbers. Composed and written by Broadway dream-team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman respectively, the songs carry an infectious energy that perfectly supplements the oddball story. A plant singing just any song is goofy, but a plant singing these particular songs somehow feels natural. A mark of a bad musical is when you can tell that the songs were written separately from the characters. In Little Shop, there’s a tight relationship between the songs and the screenplay. Even when they’re meant to be funny, they convey the realized emotions of the characters. When Audrey (Ellen Greene) sings “Somewhere That’s Green,” we’re meant to laugh at the boring normalcy of her fantasy. (“A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine/In a tract house that we share/Somewhere that’s green”) At the same time, the film never lets us forget that Audrey is a human being, and that the comedic irony only works because of how sad and pathetic her dream is.
Wrap-Up: The film’s loyalty to its premise and its characters makes it more than just a cheesy cult film, and it’s a fantastic musical to boot.